The Secret Lives of Villains #276

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Golden Age Showcase; Nelvana of the Northern Lights

Canada.  From what I’ve heard it’s a pretty nice place.

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As an American I may not know a whole lot about our neighbor to the north aside from hockey, poutine, curling, Celine Dion, hockey, maple syrup, universal healthcare, hockey, Justin Bieber, Molson, and hockey, but I do know that Canada has a respectable place in comic book history as the home of Marvel’s greatest cash cow…I mean greatest bad asses: Wolverine.

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and to all the people complaining about me not bringing up Alpha Flight,

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they came out after Wolverine.  But don’t worry, they factor into this article later.

But Wolverine wasn’t the first Canadian superhero.  Everyone’s favorite hairy man with foot long murder knives in his hands was first published in 1974 and it turns out that Canada had been in the comic book publishing business since the Golden Age.

Today we’re going to talk about Canada’s first true superhero: Nelvana of the Northern Lights.

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Origin and Career

Nelvana of the Northern Lights made her first appearance in Triumph Adventure Comics #1 which was published by Hillborough Studios in August of 1941.

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She was created by Canadian comic artist Adrian Dingle,

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who was inspired by stories told by Canadian painter Frank Johnston.

There are a couple of things to note about this comic.  For starters, the cover is in black and white and you’ve probably never heard of Hillsborough Studios.  That’s because the publisher was created by Dingle and two others to create something resembling what we would call an independent publisher today.  The reason why the comic is in black and white is to cut down on costs, partially because it was a small operation, partially due to the lack of resources thanks to the war effort, and partially due to the fact that the Canadian comic book market wasn’t very large at the time.

Nelvana would turn out to be Dingle’s greatest and most lasting success.

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For starters, she was one of the first comic book heroines ever published.  She wasn’t the first, but she beat out Wonder Woman by three months.  However, she was the first truly Canadian superhero and she was a member and protector of the Inuit people,

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and you could make the argument that this makes her one of the first Native American superheroes ever published (someone correct me in the comments if I’m wrong).

Nelvana is a demigoddess, the child of a human mother and a god named Koliak who was the king of the Northern Lights.

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Her powers were pretty fitting for a demi god.  She could fly, turn herself invisible, travel at the speed of light along the Norther Lights, and could summon a heat ray that could melt through almost anything.

Also, she had a brother named Tanero.

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What makes Tanero interesting is that he couldn’t be seen by white men, he had to turn into a dog whenever they were present.  Thankfully, her brother/household pet proved to be useful as a noble steed Nelvana could ride on.

That’s not weird at all.

In her first seven stories, Nelvana and her brother protected the Inuit people from all kinds of threats from slavers to Nazi agents, thus fulfilling the standard “Golden Age hero kicks Nazi butt” quota.

After seven issues, Dingle took his creation to a company called Bell Features, which allowed Nelvana to add some color to her adventures.

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Her stories took a left turn into crazy awesomeness after that.  Now instead of just Nazis and gangsters, Nelvana fought aliens and mad scientists with death rays.

While her enemies became crazier, Nelvana became a bit more grounded.  She adopted the civilian persona Alana North and gave up a good portion of her mystic origin to become the standard spy smasher super heroine that the real life war effort called for.

Fun side note: did you know that the Nazis actually landed on Canadian soil during the war?  They established a weather station on Newfoundland in 1943 and used it to determine weather patterns in Europe for the rest of the war.

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So it turns out that Alana North would have had an actual job on her hands and that threats of invasion weren’t that far off.

So what happened?

While Nelvana was able to hold her own and become a Canadian symbol during the war, she and her publisher could not survive the glut of American comics that flooded the Canadian market when trade restrictions were lifted after the war.  Nelvana had her last appearance in 1947 and Bell Features ceased publication in 1953.

Thankfully, despite her short history, Nelvana’s story actually gets a happy ending.  While she didn’t last very long, her impact on Canadian identity and culture lives on to this day.

The Canadian animation company Nelvana Limited is named after her.

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They bought the rights to the character in 1971 and currently share said rights with Library and Archives Canada.

And for those of you who are upset that I didn’t talk about the Canadian super team Alpha Flight don’t worry, it turns out that Nelvana is actually the mother of one of the team members: Snowbird.

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But the best part of the story is that reprints of her old stories are actually being published to this very day!  In 2013 comic book historian Hope Nicholson launched a Kickstarter campaign to reprint six of Nelvana’s old stories and bring them to a modern audience.

The campaign made its goal in five days and the project is currently being published through IDW.

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Nelvana of the Northern Lights deserves a special place in comic book history as one of the first, and most powerful super heroines in comic books.  While she got left by the wayside due to the limitations of the Canadian comic book industry, she proved that great superheroes don’t have to be American to be popular.

I like to think she was the Canadian version of Superman, a heroine who inspired thousands of other creatives to imagine and create superheroes of their own.

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